Acute pancreatitis represents a spectrum of disease, ranging from a mild, transitory illness to a severe, rapidly progressive hemorrhagic form, with massive necrosis and mortality rates of up to 24%. The reported incidence of acute pancreatitis diagnosed first at clinicopathologic autopsy ranges between 30% and 42%. To better describe outpatient fatalities due to acute pancreatitis that present as sudden, unexpected death, we retrospectively reviewed the autopsy files at the Institute of Legal Medicine, University of Hamburg, Germany, from 2000-2004. Individual cases were analyzed for sex, age, race, circumstances of death, social background of the deceased and previous medical history, seasonal occurrence of the disease, blood alcohol concentration at the time of death, body mass index, autopsy findings, histopathology, and etiology of acute pancreatitis. Among the 6178 autopsies carried out during the 5-year period evaluated, there were 27 cases of acute pancreatitis that presented as sudden, unexpected death. In all cases, the diagnosis was first made at autopsy. The male:female ratio was 1.7:1 and the mean age was 52 years (range, 30-91 years). Etiologies of acute pancreatitis included alcohol (n=19), gall stones (n=2), other identified etiologic factors (n=3), and idiopathic (n=3). Complications of acute pancreatitis included lung edema and/or acute respiratory distress syndrome, peritonitis, disseminated intravascular coagulation, and sepsis. At least 20 subjects (74%) had lived isolated, with no social contacts. Contrary to the clinical observations of a clear seasonal variation in the onset of acute pancreatitis, we found no correlation between death due to acute pancreatitis and a specific month or season. Many prior studies have suggested that the majority of deaths in severe acute pancreatitis occur in the late phase of the disease as a result of pancreatic sepsis. Conversely, in the present study, the majority of affected individuals died during the very early phase of the disease. While gallstones represent the main etiologic factor in most larger clinical series, biliary etiology seems to play only a minor role in outpatient deaths undergoing medicolegal autopsies. Data derived from medicolegal autopsy studies should be included in future population-based studies of acute pancreatitis.